Westworld probes man's ties to artificial intelligence while Luke Cage is steeped in black culture and history. Both have dense plots and ambitious themes
Touted as HBO's next big thing, Westworld has much to live up to. But based on the four episodes previewed, this is not going to be the next Game Of Thrones: It is too cerebral and its mythology too constrained, to evolve into a long-running saga.
But this ambitious series is well worth watching anyway, revolving around an amusement park where rich guests pay to interact with androids that look indistinguishable from humans.
Called "hosts", they are programmed to enact Wild West storylines designed to fulfil the guests' deepest desires - which, it turns out, are mostly to rape, pillage and murder (there are "white hat" narratives, but, tellingly, almost no one picks them).
After the mayhem, the hosts, who are engineered to never hurt the humans, are patched up and their memories are erased, so they can do it all over again.
If you remember Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and other tales where man plays god and things go awry, you know what comes next: After a software update by the park's god-like creator Ford (Anthony Hopkins) to make them more life-like, hosts such as Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) start remembering fragments of the atrocities perpetrated against them and deviate from their narrative loops.
The themes explored hark back to films and shows such as Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Humans and Her. All probe man's problematic relationship with artificial intelligence (AI), which, in turn, holds up a mirror to his own humanity or lack thereof.
Westworld poses many of the same big philosophical questions: Can machines become sentient? What is the difference between that and human consciousness? What happens if they cross the "uncanny valley" and become life-like? Will they bring out the worst in us and will they become a threat?
The series also channels films such as The Matrix and The Thirteenth Floor in raising doubts about the nature of humans' reality. The AI motif is cleverly overlaid with references to existential, ontological and cognitive debates about our self-awareness and free will, with a few digs at our predilection for certain narrative tropes thrown in.
These ideas are beautifully realised, especially in the densely plotted, lushly detailed pilot episode, by the end of which you are asking all sorts of mind-bending questions and wondering who and what is real.
But here's the rub, and why this lacks the room to grow that Game Of Thrones did: Given the fixed technological anchor for this world, there is a finite number of ways things can pan out and you can guess at a bunch of them if you've seen other stories in this genre. This is true even if you introduce another layer to the narrative, like a game within (or beyond) the game, other non-Wild West- themed worlds or even a supernatural element.
Early episodes also show signs of strains unique to simulated-world scenarios. The replaying of the park storylines a la Groundhog Day is necessarily repetitive, but there are diminishing returns each time you do this without showing a major jump in the robots' self-awareness.
Secondly, the stakes never seem as high as they would in the "real" world, even as you start believing the hosts are suffering - which is a problem if you're relying on sex and violence for impact. Things will change once guests start getting hurt - as they surely must - but we are meant to root for the robots and it is hard to do that when we are not sure how traumatised they are.
Viewers become inured to it all - which is deliciously ironic, given this is also what seems to happen to the guests. So, Westworld is scoring a philosophical point here, but at the expense of its narrative momentum.
Luke Cage, too, is lusciously drawn and replete with ambitious themes and characters. But its impact is somewhat undercut by pacing issues, patchy dialogue and tonal oddities - a shame given this is the first time we have seen a black superhero as the lead character on screen.
Boasting superhuman strength and seemingly impenetrable, bulletproof skin, Luke Cage (Mike Colter) first appeared as a supporting character in the series, Jessica Jones.
What we did not learn there was his full backstory and how he acquired his powers after being sent to jail for a crime he did not commit.
In this show, Luke is lying low, having moved from Hell's Kitchen to Harlem, where he is staying under the radar by taking menial jobs.
But you have to wait till Episode 4 to get to his backstory, which is also when the narrative gets going and you start caring about some of these characters.
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Which would be fine if the three instalments before that were not achingly slow, with clunky exposition and uninspiring introductions to characters that come into their own only much later.
Yet, there is much to appreciate in these early scenes.
The series is steeped in black culture and history - from the soul, funk and hip-hop soundtrack (which includes some awesome original tracks) and Harlem setting to the explicit references to slavery, the Black Lives Matter movement and the incarceration of black men.
Much has been made of the fact that this hero wears a hoodie, a pointed reference to the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin. But the bigger political statement is the very idea of making a black man bulletproof, which is especially poignant given the number of police shootings of African American men.
The characters also have spirited debates about black heroes and writers, which is the most racially progressive basketball team and how best to rejuvenate the neighbourhood.
It is a perspective that is all too rare in lily-white Hollywood. Yet, these wordy chats and monologues - and there are a lot of them - tend to bring the narrative to an abrupt halt and often sound like speeches and history lessons the writers have saved up for years and are now shoehorning into as many scenes as possible.
This exacerbates a chronic unevenness in tone and dialogue, which can veer from naturalistic one minute to stylised and cheesy the next. It does a disservice to a show this culturally significant.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2016, with the headline 'Taking too big a bite'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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